Friday, 16 September 2016

Historical Novel Society Conference Oxford 2016 Part 4: Rights, Responsibilities and Relationships

One of the Emperors outside the Sheldonian Theatre
is surprised to receive a visitor!
After the packed conference Saturday, we could be forgiven for feeling a little punch drunk on Sunday but more panel discussions, chat, bookstall foraging and friendship-making awaited!.

I attended a panel on Foreign Rights and Translation, with agent Carole Blake chairing, in discussion with Louise Rogers Lalaurie, a translator, and Laura Morelli, a novelist who has made her own successful foreign rights deals.

This is the sharp end of the industry: ‘This is business’, as Carole says. It’s the sort of area we writers might feel wary of and it’s certainly an area where I for one would prefer to have an agent to do the horse-trading rather than do it myself, though Laura has demonstrated that it’s perfectly possible.

Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Laura Morellis and Carole Blake
What are the key lessons to be learned? First of all, research. If you’re doing it yourself you need to research the markets in foreign countries and if someone makes an offer to publish or to translate your work, you need to do your homework. As Carole said, ‘Don’t be so grateful that you don’t ask around and do your research.’ Laura had been contacted by a Hungarian publisher and had the good sense to check them out.

Secondly, be aware of territories. Know which territories you can sell to and whether some rights have been reserved after your initial publishing deal. Has your agent sold UK rights first, followed by US/North America? Contracts will have a schedule of countries where rights are still available. Brexit – which had become a dark undertone to the conference – will make things like this more complicated in the future. In addition, Louise said that EU funding for translations of works will now decline – it’s already happening. Boo.

Thirdly, the contract. Carole said, ‘Think of every eventuality that might produce an argument’. Think of the relationship you have with your agent – you want someone with whom you can build a longterm partnership, not someone creaming off the profit from success you’ve already created for yourself, doing one deal and deserting you. She recommended that you have multiple income streams derived from separate sales of rights into different languages.

I learned that ‘In some markets it’s a legal requirement to pay a royalty to the translator’, which I hadn’t known before. Louise advocated encouraging the translator to become part of the whole selling process rather than being a temporary gun for hire. You can do this by offering a small royalty – the translator can end up being ‘your best advocate’. She said that some translators work with self-publishing authors. They may also have relationships with publishers that enable them to suggest to publishers that they should buy the rights to your work or commission a translation.

Favourite quote: ‘Agents hate the word “gave”.’ Carole Blake
Interesting book recommended: Tregiani’s Ground by Anne Cuneo

I ended up being very late for Tracy Chevalier’s Keynote Address (and as a result couldn't get a good photo of her). Luckily I’d seen her at the Oxford Literary Festival in the spring and since then I’ve read At the Edge of the Orchard which she was talking about then and very much enjoyed it.

Blackwell's bookstall was busy all weekend
Once again she proved to be a warm and witty speaker, discussing how she came to write HF: ‘It allows me to step outside myself – and no one will ask if it’s autobiographical’. She expressed wariness, though, when it comes to the HF label, saying that if she were to sum up each of her novels in a tagline, it would come across as a contemporary story. She added ‘Being interested in the past makes us better people’, clearly feeling that the modern age is a solipsistic one. Her latest work is a take on Shakespeare’s Othello, transferred to an American school in 1974. (Hogarth Press has been commissioning authors to re-envision Shakespeare – I’ll be attending Margaret Atwood’s talk here in Oxford in November. Her novel, Hag-seed, is an interpretation of The Tempest. I’m not sure, actually, how I feel about all this, but we’ll see.)

Writing this book led her to wonder whether 1974 could be said to be historical – so we were coming full circle to the discussion started by Fay Weldon and Jo Baker on Friday. This also led, as with Melvyn Bragg, to a consideration of the times we’re living in (or through), in this truly insane year of politics, of Brexit, of what Tracy called ‘terrible news’.  ‘Sometimes you feel you’re living history,’ she said and we all agreed. And to be honest, it doesn’t feel good. Maybe, I thought, that is one of the reasons we love HF – it’s the past and it’s safely in the past. Nothing feels all that safe right now.

Lovely slide design by Alison Morton
After the coffee-break I took part in a panel discussion myself, along with Alison Morton, Helen Hollick and Antoine Vanner. Our topic was Going Indie: Questions and Answers. We discussed the benefits of going indie: Control! Freedom! Transparent royalties and income! Choosing your own cover! Taking pride in producing your work as professionally as possible!

We were also honest about the pitfalls. As a literary consultant myself I stressed the importance of proper editing. We talked about the burden of responsibility that never ends: the constant marketing and promotion which can feel like a treadmill sometimes.

However, dear reader, bear this in mind: whether you are trade-published or indie, the ultimate responsibility for your book is yours. And you will always have to market it, no matter what.

Tracy Chevalier, Harry Sidebottom and CC Humphreys
After a lively Q & A session I made it to the final event, the hilarious HistFictionist Challenge, a quiz that pitted the panel – Tracy Chevalier, CC Humphreys, Harry Sidebottom - against the audience. We learned the many names under which Jean Plaidy wrote, the relative number of words in Ben Hur versus the population of London at a certain era and much much more …

Then, in a rush of final speeches, lunch, buying books and getting them signed, hugs and farewells, it was all over.

Carol McGrath and Jenny Barden
are thanked by HNS chairman Richard Lee
The committee breathed a collective, contented but utterly exhausted sigh of relief – Oxford 2016 had been everything we’d wanted it to be, under the guiding hands of Carol McGrath and Jenny Barden. Memories have been made, friendships forged – and Oxford itself was a star player, though it could have done slightly better on the weather front!

Shout-outs to the Committee:

Richard Lee (HNS Chairman), Carol McGrath, Jenny Barden, Liz Harris, Deborah Swift, Anita Chapman, Alison Morton, Nikki Fine, Clare Flynn, Antoine Vanner, Mary Fisk, Ouida Taafe, Charlotte Betts, Helen Hollick, Charlie Farrow.

I’d like to thank the staff at St Anne’s College who were incredibly helpful during many months when I was fielding accommodation inquiries!

Shout-outs to old friends and new acquaintances:

Essie Fox, Emma Darwin, Karen Maitland, Douglas Jackson, Alison Morton, Anna Belfrage and many others, plus the friends I knew were present – yet we didn’t even have time to say hello!
Farewell to the beautiful venue, the Andrew Wiles Building

Home again - and lucky me, home means Oxford!
A selection of my lovely conference swag!

Details of the new season of my Fictionfire workshops, a day course and a retreat can be found here, and you can sign up for my Fictionfire newsletter - articles, recommended reads and resources, competitions and more.

An Oxford Vengeance, my collection of short stories including 'Salt', which won the Conference London 2014 Award, is available to buy on Amazon here and here.

Part 1 of these posts on the 2016 HNS conference is here, Part 2 is here and Part 3 is here. My posts on the conferences of 2014 and 2012 go here.




Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Historical Novel Society Conference Oxford 2016 Part 3: Awards, Ears and Eating


Vanessa Lafaye and Ian Skillicorn
The first event of Saturday afternoon was Conference Oxford 2016 Short Story Award. This was so exciting because I’d been one of the judges, along with Deborah Swift and Ouida Taafe, who chose the longlist – and all twelve stories on that list were of an incredibly high standard. We didn’t envy judge Ian Skillicorn the task of selecting the top stories from the shortlist of six, but here they are and many congratulations to the writers! Third equal prize went to Richard Buxton for ‘Disunion’ and Anna Belfrage for ‘The Sharing of a Husband’. Second place went to Jeffrey Manton for ‘The Fat Lady Sings’ and the deserving winner was Vanessa Lafaye for ‘Fire on the Water’.

Lucienne Boyce
The award ceremony passed so speedily and I was so concerned to give out certificates and congratulations that I didn’t take many photos! The story award was followed by the HNS Indie Award 2016 – I was delighted to see Lucienne Boyce win with Bloody Bones jointly with Barbara Sjoholm for Fossil Island. The MM Bennetts Award 2016 went to Stuart Blackburn for Into the Hidden Valley.

Jo Baker, Suzannah Dunn, Charlotte Betts,
Deborah Swift
I then attended a panel discussion, Ears at the Door, looking at how novelists can use servants’ points of view in their fiction, with Jo Baker, author of Longbourn, Charlotte Betts, author of The House in Quill Court and Suzannah Dunn, whose most recent novel is The Lady of Misrule, chaired by Deborah Swift. 

In their discussion they talked of the advantages of using servants – sometimes servants could go to places their mistresses couldn’t and they could be privy to knowledge or make independent observations. This new point of view could be enlightening: Jo Baker referred to the servants in Jane Austen’s novels as ‘the ghosts in the texts’. Suzannah Dunn’s agent had said to her ‘Don’t just tell us what we already know’ so a servant’s perspective could cast a new light on things. She said that the servant figures need to be more than just observers, though: ‘they have to have their own story’. Jo Baker agreed – and this is the point of Longbourn where the servants’ stories weave in and out of the action of Pride and Prejudice – or is it the other way about? Charlotte Betts pointed out that it can be difficult to have a maid or social inferior at ‘the right place at the right time’, which led to a discussion of the separation of employer and servants in the rigid hierarchies of past centuries. Considering the kind of language to employ, Jo said it helped to read documents never originally intended for publication, such as Jane Austen’s letters and that she aimed for a kind of ‘demotic’ style. 

Suzannah Dunn
The session ended with a communal shaking of heads over inappropriate ‘frilly frocks’ on covers. This struck a chord with me because I’d recently read Tracy Chevalier’s novel At the Edge of the Orchard in hardback, the (admittedly lovely) cover of which featured a swampy woodland (yup), an apple (yup) and someone holding an axe (yup – though not of primary importance, I felt) but the person holding said axe was a young lady wearing a white dress, clearly to make us think a young woman is at the heart of this story (nope).

Manda Scott, Kate Williams and Margaret George
I was unable to attend any of the next panel discussions as I was on front of house duty, but was there for a conversation about Faith and Morality in Historical Fiction and Biography, chaired by Manda Scott and featuring Kate Williams and Margaret George. And wouldn’t you know it, much of the discussion was about that line between what was true of the time and the degree to which one can invent or stretch things to satisfy readers’ demands. Margaret George said ‘You might have to step on some toes, offend some readers’. In addition, Margaret said, it can ‘turn off readers to portray the mindset and discourse of centuries where religion was permeating everything’. Kate Williams said we often don’t perceive how ‘radical’ it was for characters to ‘break convention’, referring to Jane Austen’s writing and how to us that doesn’t seem all that startling an activity for a young woman to pursue but it was back then. She mentioned that one of the criticisms levelled at Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is that the main character wanders about Amsterdam quite a lot, unescorted – but that ‘we need some licence’ as storytellers. Manda pointed out that there is a dividing line and that if you give your characters overly ‘modern sensibilities … it rings false’, so, once again, our question as HF writers is whether ‘we do have a duty’ to represent the past accurately. Kate said we need to ‘try to give the truth of the characters’ and that ‘In fiction you have to come down on one side’.

My favourite quote of the day came from Margaret George: Emperor ‘Nero has had a terrible press because of the Christians’. Shucks, those pesky cults …

And so, to the Gala Dinner, held at St Anne’s College. Lovely food and the buzz of chat, a glorious Costume Pageant and an inspiring after-dinner speech by Christopher Gortner. Finally, some extraordinary readings by Joanna Courtney, Gillian Bagwell and CC Humphreys – the last of these so powerful and brilliantly read that I made sure next day to buy the book in question, Fire.


Here are some more photos – my next blogpost will be about the Sunday sessions.


The longlisted short story writers waiting for the result!
Jo Baker
Lovely photo of writer friends David Penny and Alison Morton
(Alison was on the shortlist for the Indie Award)

Details of the new season of my Fictionfire workshops, a day course and a retreat can be found here, and you can sign up for my Fictionfire newsletter - articles, recommended reads and resources, competitions and more.

An Oxford Vengeance, my collection of short stories including 'Salt', which won the Conference London 2014 Award, is available to buy on Amazon here and here.

Part 1 of these posts on the 2016 HNS conference is here and Part 2 is here.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Historical Novel Society Conference Oxford 2016 Part 2: The Next Big Thing, Re-enactors and Rebellions

Take a deep breath, dear reader; we’re going in. Saturday 3rd September marked the central day of the HNS conference. It began with a panel discussion ‘The Next Big Thing in Historical Fiction, featuring Carole Blake as Chair, with David Headley of Goldsboro Books, Nick Sayers of Hodder and Stoughton, Simon Taylor of Transworld and Jane Johnson of HarperCollins. Quite a powerhouse panel, all trying to answer the unanswerable question – yet a question asked at every conference: where is HF going? Which era will be the most fashionable?

David Headley wants to see more sweeping World War 2 sagas. Simon Taylor thinks ancient Greece. Jane Johnson wants more diversity, having ‘had enough of Tudor/Elizabethan’ and she’d like more cross-cultural HF. Nick Sayers is keen on literature in translation, referencing as an example Christina Eckhart’s Wolf Winter, the subject of which is the relationship between Sweden and Lapland in the 17th century. Carole Blake asked him if that had been ‘an easy sell within the publishing house’ – he replied that ‘It was easy because it was a wonderful read.’


Carole Blake, Nick Sayers, Simon Taylor,
David Headley, Jane Johnson
When I’m giving workshops on self-editing or pitching, I always draw people’s attention to this very point: that selling isn’t just about selling your book to the reader, the end-user. There are many different selling junctures throughout the process: you ‘sell’ to the agent, the agent sells to the editor, the editor sells in-house to the sales and marketing people who then sell to the bookseller – and eventually, if you’re lucky, your book is sitting on a shelf ready to catch the eye of the browsing customer. Phew! As Carole Blake said: ‘Every book has to be sold half a dozen times. … The editors here are not the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers are the sales teams.’

The panel members highlighted how, at every stage, a clear sense of the book’s essence is necessary. However ‘fresh’ the voice, however individual the topic or treatment, we seek to encapsulate it, whether by comparison with other established writers, or by period, or by genre or sub-genre such as historical crime. This, as Jane Johnson said, is why Tudor or Roman HF is successful: ‘It’s seen as an easier sell’. David Headley commented that ‘It’s difficult to sell a period that’s not sexy’ and Jane said that HF ‘often has feet in different genres but sales teams want to pin it down’ before adding that ‘centralised buyers … don’t seem to read. If they don’t like the look … they simply won’t stock it’, reminding us how crucial the cover treatment is to that instant assessment of what the book is, without the bother of ploughing through all those pesky words … Nick Sayers said that ‘people might think a cover beautiful but walk past, not knowing what it is.’ He also said ‘Booksellers like a label.’

You’ll have noticed by now that the conversation had strayed from ‘the next big thing’ to ‘reasons why the current big things are big’. The panel also segued into a discussion of publicity, particularly with regard to social media now that newspaper review space is shrinking more and more. Carole Blake uttered a heartfelt ‘Thank God for bloggers’. Jane Johnson highlighted how poor publicity departments in big trade publishing houses can be sometimes when it comes to tweeting about books and authors on their lists. Carole echoed this: ‘It takes up time and some authors don’t enjoy it …  there are times when the publishers sit back and let the authors do all the marketing.’

Jane’s comment that ‘As a writer you don’t want to be doing the hard sell. … Writers want to write’ will have struck a chord with many in the audience. Carole stressed, quite rightly, that if you engage with social media you shouldn’t shout ‘Buy my book!’ all the time, but instead take part in natural ‘water-cooler’ chats, establishing a presence and creating relationships rather than indulging in a digital version of marching up and down with a placard.

Finally, the panel returned to that old chestnut – that ‘You can’t write to the market. You have to write what’s in your heart – it’s the only thing that will let the voice shine out.’ (Jane Johnson). Yes, that’s true. I probably talked about this in the aftermath of the last HNS UK conference and the one before that. Heart v head, Muse v Mammon, the individual voice v genre expectations. We writers square circles like these all the time!

As I was on front of house duty after that, I couldn’t attend any of the interesting panels – though I did see the 1066 Re-enactors demonstrating an Anglo-Saxon shield-wall to the war-cry ‘Ut! Ut! UT! – great fun!

Before lunch the keynote address was given by Melvyn Bragg whose latest novel, Now is the Time, focuses on the Peasants’ Revolt – or as he’d prefer, Rebellion – in the fourteenth century.

Melvyn’s keynote was passion: he was tripping over himself at times, in his enthusiasm and his indignation. He drew contrasts between our world and the time of Richard II but at the same time highlighted the similarities. He felt the peasants – not that they were peasants, in his view – were like those who recently voted for Brexit: tired, quite simply, of not being heard, of being disregarded by the high and the mighty of the land, taking drastic action to be listened to. It was an unsettling parallel to draw – the Revolt/Rebellion didn’t exactly turn out well …

He mentioned the focus on mortality back then, perfectly understandable in the wake of the Black Death, where ‘the only cure at their disposal was prayer’, and the rise of English as the language of political debate and poetry – how Wyclif and Chaucer were creating new audiences for expression in English words, not Latin or French. He told us how much he hated William the Conqueror. He asserted ‘the rights of fiction’ to inhabit that space I was discussing in my previous post, that space between what happened and what is imaginable. If Herodotus and Shakespeare could reimagine history, why can’t we?

Delegates had much to discuss, then, over lunch. I’ll tell you about the story awards, afternoon session and gala dinner in my next post!
Essie Fox - whose novel The Last Days of Leda Grey
 comes out in November. I can't wait to read it!

Karen Maitland, one of my favourite writers



Details of the new season of my Fictionfire workshops, a day course and a retreat can be found here, and you can sign up for my Fictionfire newsletter - articles, recommended reads and resources, competitions and more.

An Oxford Vengeance is available to buy on Amazon here and here.

Part 1 of these posts on the 2016 HNS conference is here.





Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Historical Novel Society Conference Oxford 2016 Part 1: Dreaming of History among the Spires

Welcome to the first of my posts on the HNS Conference of 2016, this time held in the glorious city of Oxford, last weekend.

Historical fiction has been on my mind all summer. I gave a lecture at the Oxford University Creative Writing Summer School at Exeter College at the start of August, the title of which was ‘Writing Historical Fiction: Spinning Fact into Fiction’. That was a title decided upon a very long time ago, so it was ironic to see on the HNS conference programme, that Tracy Chevalier would be talking about ‘Fact into Fiction: A Historical Novelist’s Relationship to the Past’ and Lord Melvyn Bragg’s speech would be ‘Now is the Time: Historical Fact or Fiction?’

This highlights the constant concern debated in HF: the interface between fact and fiction, between what is known and what can be imagined. A couple of days before the conference opened, I published an ebook, An Oxford Vengeance, because I wanted to celebrate the privilege of living here, in a city where extraordinary facts jump out at you, crying out to be turned into fiction. Oxford has inspired writers for centuries and those who attended the conference could very well see why. Their eagerness to come here, their joy and fascination during their brief stay, served to remind me how incredibly lucky I am to be surrounded by such beauty and tradition in a location that oozes history from every pore.

The title story of An Oxford Vengeance straddles fact and fiction: in it I imagine what might have happened in the aftermath of the events of Chaucer’s ‘The Miller’s Tale’, one of the famous Canterbury Tales. He located it in Oxford, in Osney – so I set about researching the 14th century history and creating a darker set of consequences from the farcical scenario he relates.

But, back to the conference! Friday afternoon saw willing helpers and members of the committee, who have been dedicating themselves to the preparation and smooth running of the event for many months now, gather at the Mathematics Institute to fill goody bags for delegates. The logistics of this operation were quite something and very well described in Nikki Fine’s post on the subject! Hundreds of bags were stacked against the wall, to vanish quickly during the course of that evening and the following day.

The conference proper got under way in the evening. Conference co-ordinator Carol McGrath welcomed Fay Weldon and Jo Baker to discuss The Big House Story. Fay wrote the first parts of Upstairs, Downstairs and Jo Baker wrote Longbourn, which focuses on the stories of the servants in the household of the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice fame.

They started with an analysis of the importance of servants – how, as Jo said, they were ‘the clockwork of the house’. Fay said that ‘The life downstairs is the real life’. They went on to discuss the paradoxical position of servants, able to eavesdrop and observe, but in some cases not even allowed to make eye contact with their employers.

Broadening the discussion from the central topic, they discussed their writing practices and aims. Jo said she’d discovered she’d been writing a large part of her current work in progress in a stage of ‘indignation’ – ‘Indignation is a great thing’, Fay reassured her, before asserting that ‘You have to choose your characters to make your point and your novel has to have a point.’ When discussing historical fiction and the accuracy of research, Jo told us ‘If you become too mimetic you make it less accessible to a reader’, so there we are, at that interface between the actual and the imagined once more.

As for what counts as historical fiction, Jo claimed that ‘Books start to be historical when clothes count as vintage.’ That’s a goodly portion of my life turning into history, then …


The evening concluded with a wine and canap├ęs reception. I’ll tell you all about the packed Saturday programme in my next post – in the meantime, enjoy the photos!



An Oxford Vengeance is available to buy on Amazon here and here.




Details of the new season of my Fictionfire workshops, a day course and a retreat can be found here, and you can sign up for my Fictionfire newsletter - articles, recommended reads and resources, competitions and more.